Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bad Plans

13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
(1 Corinthians 13:1-3, ESV)
As we continue down the road of 1 Corinthians 13 today, where we began here, I want to pick up on what Paul specifically warns about here. Recall that the Corinthians were caught up in relentless self-promotion. They wanted to promote themselves, and so advertised their own foolishness. Everyone knows someone like that, so caught up in advertising themselves, but effectively marketing their weaknesses above all else. Some of us have the unfortunate history of being like that ourselves.
Paul, in the famous ‘love chapter,’ reveals that the problem is a mistake in emphasis. We often think they have found the secret to success, but we are really just grasping at the shadows of what God intends for us. In these few verses, Paul excludes four distractors which give us a false satiation, but cannot satisfy our real purpose.
It Isn’t How You Say Things
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
                This one is more or less obvious. God is not impressed by how you say things. You can have a mastery of your language, another language or even some language of heaven, but all of that adornment amounts to nothing. It is just a cacophony, chaos set to rhyme. An eloquent speaker with nothing to say is worse than neutral, like the banging of an 8th grade rock band, he is an active annoyance. God is fundamentally unimpressed by how well you say things, if it is not motivated by love.
It Isn’t What You Say
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…”
                This may be a little harder to swallow. It is not just that God is unimpressed by how you say things, scandalously, He is unimpressed by what you say. Maybe this makes you a little uncomfortable – truth is truth, and the proclamation of truth is good. But your assumptions about the way things must be are dispelled by the way the apostle says things actually are. You can be a prophet - one who speaks to people on God’s behalf, and God can still be displeased. How much more does that humble you and I, if a direct word from God is not automatically a fragrant sacrifice? You can understand every secret mystery of heaven and earth and share them with the utmost clarity, but if you lack love, God finds it deficient. It is a sacrifice, to be sure, but in the absence of love, it is an offering made in an unacceptable way.
It Isn’t How You Do Things
“…and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
                Those well acquainted with the book of James may have an answer to the above points: of course God doesn’t care about what you say, but only about what you do! They will try to argue that talk is cheap, but actions speak volumes. It is the way you do things that really matters.
                That may be true, but Paul (on God’s behalf) is still not impressed. Even if you act with a constant glow of faithful piety, the kind of undoubting trust in God that moves mountains, you are nothing without love. Let me show you Paul’s words again: “…if I have all faith… but have not love, I am nothing.” This clashes against my comfortable worldview some, where I feel as if trusting God ought to be the highest good. If faith is how we are saved, as Paul says time and time again, how can something be a higher good than that? Unlike our plan for our lives, however, God does not intend for us to simply be ‘saved and satisfied.’ If you are going to be pleasing to God, you must continue to grow in His service, and the currency of the Kingdom is love. Faith introduces you, but it alone does not make you into anything substantial. Even if you do everything in the proper way, with any motive other than love, God is still unmoved.
It Isn’t What You Do
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
                In the King James Version, the word charity is used in place of love throughout, because several hundred years ago, charity referred to self-sacrificing love. In modern vernacular, we have reduced the word charity to refer to its most obvious manifestation: giving. That makes the idea here plain: if I have external acts of charity, performed in faith, but do not undergird it with a charitable spirit, I still do nothing favorable to God. If I give up my whole self, turning my body over to the point of total consumption, but lack love in it, it amounts to vanity and chasing after the wind.
                The last stronghold of self-defense is here destroyed. To matter in God’s sight, it is not about how you say things, or about what you say. It is not about how you do things or, wonder of wonders, what you do. God looks at your heart and asks “Is my Spirit radiating love out of this life?”
A Higher Way
                Paul’s purpose here is to force us to abandon superficial solutions to metastasized problems. The disease which causes our sinful, selfish behavior is burrowed far too deep into us to simply treat the symptoms. God sees the stirring darkness within, the selfishness and the pride that drive the things which seem to be good, and He looks for us to treat the real problem. What we need is love that stretches down to the depths of us and explodes out into the world around us. The kind of love that loves the unlovable and extends to those who do not deserve it is the only cure to our own unlovable hearts.

                How can we acquire this? Has Paul diagnosed a problem, but offered no cure? No, because he refers to love as a gift. That is the whole point of the passage: love is something that God gives to His children. If you have come to Him in faith, and become a recipient of His love, He is already changing you and teaching you to love. If you want to accelerate the process, just pray in specific, sincere faith, and watch God change you from the inside out. If it seems too easy, have you tried it? Have you even really wanted love before? May God grant you the desire and the gift. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Love and Loss

13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3, ESV)

I had a night off from church last night since our evening services were cancelled because of special services throughout the day. I had the chance to go listen to Bro John Raines at Alvin MBC on the subject of 1 Corinthians 13. He had some really thought provoking comments, but he also provoked some other ideas in me which I wanted to share. Please do not hold him responsible for any heresy here, this is my own tangent off of his points.

1 Corinthians 13, often called the love chapter and often read[1] at weddings, is the culmination of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts. The church at Corinth, quite a messed up group by any account, had become positively obsessed with showing off. These proto-Americans worshipped knowledge and the heroes who delivered it, much to the detriment of their relationship with the Living God. When measuring the value of a person, the Corinthians looked for glitz, glamor and gaudiness. They had projected these ideas onto religious figures, and had begun to produce a cult of the personality.

This is not an entirely unnatural problem. God has chosen, for reasons I have never been able to grasp, to use human personalities as His instruments and representatives. As Paul explains in his sequel to this letter, God has not chosen angels or miracles to convey His message, but He has entrusted it to the frailty of humanity. In Exodus 7:1 (ESV), we are met with this doozy of a statement: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.’” What a powerful thought! Have you ever read that before? God told Moses that when he spoke God’s words, Moses would stand in God’s place, serving as a visible manifestation of the invisible God. What an incredible responsibility Moses held! Pause for a moment and imagine how you would have to live if God placed you under that kind of a charge.

Once you have grasped and sympathized with Moses, let me give you the difficult news. You have also been called to be God’s representative (2 Corinthians 5:20, Galatians 4:14, Ephesians 6:20 and Philippians 1:29 all discuss God’s people representing Him, without even addressing the ongoing metaphor of being the body of Christ). Beyond that uniquely Christian responsibility, the entire Bible assumes that human beings are the image bearers of God; in some sense, we do for God what the idols did in paganism. We serve as a reminder and as a visible pointer to the invisible.

Given human pride and sinfulness, it is no surprise that people begin to have an intense devotion to the human beings who lead them. In fact, even this is not sinful. It was God’s design for Moses to represent him, and Paul even told the factitious Corinthians specifically to follow him, as he follows Christ[2]. The problem is when the symbol begins to be worshipped instead of the Symbolized, and the creation rather than the Creator. It is a terrible thing to credit the one who directs you to the cure for the curing, and it certainly ought to grieve God’s servants to feel that they are distracting people from Christ, rather than pointing them to Him. It certainly does grieve God that His people do not always respond that way.

Like so much of the sin in our lives, the issue is not of something being entirely and unforgivably bad. The issue is of mankind taking something good, the product of the design of the Good One, and perverting it into something sinful. In the first century church, God had granted miraculous spiritual gifts for His people to use for His glory, but the church at Corinth had decided to turn them into a self-glorifying show. In the midst of this chaos, Paul puts everything into dramatic perspective, claiming that the things the Corinthians value are not the things God values. If we imitate someone and hope their path will bring us closer to God, certainly we should look for what God looks for in defining success. Paul sums it up succinctly: if I have all of the trappings of success, but love does not undergird it all, it is less than worthless. Like a Stradivarius falling down a staircase, any capacity for fantastic music becomes a meaningless clatter. Like a great redwood tree consumed by termites, we can speak every truth, only to be crushed when they crash to the ground. Like an empty nursery, torn by grief, a crib is not precious unless it swaddles a child. In each of these cases, the potential for glory does not console, but only deepens the terror.

Paul, looking at the Christians in Corinth, but down to our own day, says the same of all of our pride. I can hear him calling across the centuries to our American mentality: “You wish to be great? You wish to speak for God? You have talent, knowledge and devotion? Well, if you lack love, everything you have is just a frame around a torn painting.”

God has called each and every one of us to be His representatives. To trade the privilege of pointing people to the Sovereign God for pointing them to our fallible selves is an exercise in futility, and any greatness we may display only makes the foolishness of the task more evident. If I wrap a lack of love in the best that the world has to offer, I have sold my life for nothingness. May God deliver us from pride and from success in the wrong things. May He open our eyes to His greatness and the upward calling that presses us onward in His service.

Next time we will look at these thoughts in a little more detail and see what specific things are worthless, so make sure you subscribe to this blog. In the meantime, pray for God to help us all to value things the way He does, and so repent of the sin we have borrowed from Corinth.

[1] Quite inappropriately, I have to add.
[2] 1 Corinthians 11:1, cf. 1 Corinthians 4:16, Philippians 3:17 and 1 Thessalonians 1:6